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Six Syllable Types

By: Louisa Moats, Carol Tolman
Learn the six types of syllables found in English orthography, why it's important to teach syllables, and the sequence in which students learn about both spoken and written syllables.

Six written syllable-spelling conventions are used in English spelling. These were regularized by Samuel Webster to justify his 1806 dictionary's division of syllables. The conventions are useful to teach because they help students remember when to double letters in spelling and how to pronounce the vowels in new words. The conventions also help teachers organize decoding and spelling instruction.

Warm-up: Why double?

Read this fascinating tale. As you read, underline words in which there are two or more consonants between the first and second syllables.

Thunker's pet cats, Pete and Kate, enjoyed dining on dinner. They were fated to fatness. The pet Pete, who was cuter than Kate, was a cutter cat with sharp claws and teeth, scary scars, and one jagged ear.

Pete was ripping up ripening apples and biting bitter strips of striped bug bits as he stared into the starry night. The cat Kate was not as scared or scarred. Kate liked licking slimy slops that slopped from a bucket, sitting at a site that sloped and caused the slop to slide. Kate liked sitting at the site where the slops slid.

— Created by Bruce Rosow (Moats & Rosow, 2003)

What do you notice about the vowel sounds that come before the doubled consonants?

Why teach syllables?

Without a strategy for chunking longer words into manageable parts, students may look at a longer word and simply resort to guessing what it is — or altogether skipping it. Familiarity with syllable-spelling conventions helps readers know whether a vowel is long, short, a diphthong, r-controlled, or whether endings have been added. Familiarity with syllable patterns helps students to read longer words accurately and fluently and to solve spelling problems — although knowledge of syllables alone is not sufficient for being a good speller.

Spoken and written syllables are different

Say these word pairs aloud and listen to where the syllable breaks occur:

bridle – riddle     table –   tatter     even – ever

Spoken syllables are organized around a vowel sound. Each word above has two syllables. The jaw drops open when a vowel in a syllable is spoken. Syllables can be counted by putting your hand under your chin and feeling the number of times the jaw drops for a vowel sound.

Spoken syllable divisions often do not coincide with or give the rationale for the conventions of written syllables. In the first word pair above, you may naturally divide the spoken syllables of bridle between bri and dle and the spoken syllables of riddle between ri and ddle. Nevertheless, the syllable rid is "closed" because it has a short vowel; therefore, it must end with consonant. The first syllable bri is "open," because the syllable ends with a long vowel sound. The result of the syllable-combining process leaves a double d in riddle (a closed syllable plus consonant-le) but not in bridle (open syllable plus consonant-le). These spelling conventions are among many that were invented to help readers decide how to pronounce and spell a printed word.

The hourglass illustrates the chronology or sequence in which students learn about both spoken and written syllables. Segmenting and blending spoken syllables is an early phonological awareness skill; reading syllable patterns is a more advanced decoding skill, reliant on student mastery of phoneme awareness and phoneme-grapheme correspondences.

Figure 5.1. Hourglass Depiction of the Relationship Between Awareness in Oral Language and Written Syllable Decoding
(Contributed by Carol Tolman, and used with permission.)

hourglass

Click to see full image

Closed syllables

The closed syllable is the most common spelling unit in English; it accounts for just under 50 percent of the syllables in running text. When the vowel of a syllable is short, the syllable will be closed off by one or more consonants. Therefore, if a closed syllable is connected to another syllable that begins with a consonant, two consonant letters will come between the syllables (com-mon, but-ter).

Two or more consonant letters often follow short vowels in closed syllables (dodge, stretch, back, stuff, doll, mess, jazz). This is a spelling convention; the extra letters do not represent extra sounds. Each of these example words has only one consonant phoneme at the end of the word. The letters give the short vowel extra protection against the unwanted influence of vowel suffixes (backing; stuffed; messy).

Vowel-Consonant-e (VCe) syllables

Also known as "magic e" syllable patterns, VCe syllables contain long vowels spelled with a single letter, followed by a single consonant, and a silent e. Examples of VCe syllables are found in wake, whale, while, yoke, yore, rude, and hare. Every long vowel can be spelled with a VCe pattern, although spelling "long e" with VCe is unusual.

Open syllables

If a syllable is open, it will end with a long vowel sound spelled with one vowel letter; there will be no consonant to close it and protect the vowel (to-tal, ri-val, bi-ble, mo-tor). Therefore, when syllables are combined, there will be no doubled consonant between an open syllable and one that follows.

A few single-syllable words in English are also open syllables. They include me, she, he and no, so, go. In Romance languages — especially Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian — open syllables predominate.

Vowel team syllables

A vowel team may be two, three, or four letters; thus, the term vowel digraph is not used. A vowel team can represent a long, short, or diphthong vowel sound. Vowel teams occur most often in old Anglo-Saxon words whose pronunciations have changed over hundreds of years. They must be learned gradually through word sorting and systematic practice. Examples of vowel teams are found in thief, boil, hay, suit, boat, and straw.

Sometimes, consonant letters are used in vowel teams. The letter y is found in ey, ay, oy, and uy, and the letter w is found in ew, aw, and ow. It is not accurate to say that "w can be a vowel," because the letter is working as part of a vowel team to represent a single vowel sound. Other vowel teams that use consonant letters are -augh, -ough, -igh, and the silent -al spelling for /aw/, as in walk.

Vowel-r syllables

We have chosen the term "vowel-r" over "r-controlled" because the sequence of letters in this type of syllable is a vowel followed by r (er, ir, ur, ar, or). Vowel-r syllables are numerous, variable, and difficult for students to master; they require continuous review. The /r/ phoneme is elusive for students whose phonological awareness is underdeveloped. Examples of vowel-r syllables are found in perform, ardor, mirror, further, worth, and wart.

Consonant-le (C-le) syllables

Also known as the stable final syllable, C-le combinations are found only at the ends of words. If a C-le syllable is combined with an open syllable — as in cable, bugle, or title — there is no doubled consonant. If one is combined with a closed syllable — as in dabble, topple, or little — a double consonant results.

Not every consonant is found in a C-le syllable. These are the ones that are used in English:

-ble (bubble) -fle (rifle) -stle (whistle) -cle (cycle)
-gle (bugle) -tle (whittle) -ckle (trickle) -kle (tinkle)
-zle (puzzle) -dle (riddle) -ple (quadruple) 

Simple and complex syllables

Closed, open, vowel team, vowel-r, and VCe syllables can be either simple or complex. A complex syllable is any syllable containing a consonant cluster (i.e., a sequence of two or three consonant phonemes) spelled with a consonant blend before and/or after the vowel. Simple syllables have no consonant clusters.

SimpleComplex
lateplate
sackstack
rickshrink
teetree
bideblind

Complex syllables are more difficult for students than simple syllables. Introduce complex syllables after students can handle simple syllables.

Table 5.1. Summary of Six Types of Syllables in English Orthography

Syllable TypeExamplesDefinition
Closeddap-ple
hos-tel
bev-er-age
A syllable with a short vowel, spelled with a single vowel letter ending in one or more consonants.
Vowel-Consonant-e (VCe)com-pete
des-pite
A syllable with a long vowel, spelled with one vowel + one consonant + silent e.
Openpro-gram
ta-ble
re-cent
A syllable that ends with a long vowel sound, spelled with a single vowel letter.
Vowel Team
(including diphthongs)
aw-ful
train-er
con-geal
spoil-age
Syllables with long or short vowel spellings that use two to four letters to spell the vowel. Diphthongs ou/ow and oi/oy are included in this category.
Vowel-r (r-controlled)in-jur-i-ous
con-sort
char-ter
A syllable with er, ir, or, ar, or ur. Vowel pronunciation often changes before /r/.
Consonant-le (C-le)drib-ble
bea-gle
lit-tle
An unaccented final syllable that contains a consonant before /l/, followed by a silent e.
Leftovers: Odd and Schwa syllablesdam-age
act-ive
na-tion
Usually final, unaccented syllables with odd spellings.
Moats, L, & Tolman, C (2009). Excerpted from Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS): Spellography for Teachers: How English Spelling Works (Module 3). Boston: Sopris West.

For more information on Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS) visit the Sopris West LETRS website.

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Comments

I love this! I'd like to teach and help teachers in Kenya apply the orthographic and linguistic insights you've explained. When students can't hear the differences in the 12 vowels of Englis they're at a huge disadvantage for both spelling and comprehension.

A Final Consonant-le syllable can be combined with a closed syllable and not result in doubled consonants. Here are a few examples to help get started: ble- bumble crumble humble mumble nimble ramble scramble stumble tremble; dle- bundle candle handle spindle; ple- crumple dimple sample simple trample; kle- ankle crinkle sprinkle twinkle; ckle- buckle cackle crackle fickle freckle heckle pickle; stle- bristle bustle castle gristle hustle jostle nestle rustle thistle;

As in everything else, teaching phonics k-12 has become over complicated - the bottom line, kids have to learn endless set of spelling rules impossible to memorize. The way you presented it here makes more sense and required an active thinking ...and it is closer to the real history of word formation...way to go!

How about those conventions if a syllable is not a stressed syllable? I mean these conventions can be true if a syllable is stressed, but how about for an unstressed syllable?

you should show things like how you would write it like how would you write tornado and sorry if i spelled something wrong

Words such as "bind" or" bold" are exceptions... --LD and --ND-
I like to call them the "kickers"... imagine the final "d" as a big boot kicking the fence ("l") or the can ("n") so hard it also kicks the vowel in front!
The kick is so hard that it makes the vowel shout out its name O or I

I love your 'story' to explain this - I've been wondering how 'find' and 'kind' fit in with open/closed syllable explanations. Now I have a handy answer. Thanks!

Very informative! Quick question: Tell me about the word 'bind'. I know it's a complex syllable because of the cluster; however, I'm having trouble deciding whether it's open or closed. The vowel is enclosed (indicating closed syllable), but the single vowel is long (suggesting open syllable).

Connie, There are exceptions to the syllable rules. Bind is an exception to the closed syllable rule. (ind) (ost) (ild) are examples depending on the word. (ive) can be an exception to a VCe syllable, such as in the word "give."

Connie, the word bind is not open or closed. It is the exception to the rule. A word followed by "nd" or "ld" will usually have the long vowel sound, like in..... bind, kind, wild, child, gold, bold.... etc.

J. Ross.... Mother and Father are diviede differently, because the "th" sound need to be kept togeher... you can figure out how many syllables a word has by counting the vowel sounds (not the vowels, but the sounds) The vowel sounds in Mother are "u" and "er" and the vowel sounds in father are.... "o" and "er"

I've used six syllables to teach elementary students and now I'm finding it very helpful for an adult student who has never learned to decode words. Adults can appreciate and grasp these rules in a language which so often breaks the rules.

Fantastic article. I'm a parent of two elementary school kids. I find this very helpful to reinforce the school lessons at home. I did not learn this as a child and find it helpful for my pronunciation of written words.One note from an above post by Teddy. It is noted that "A Final Consonant-le syllable can be combined with a closed syllable and not result in doubled consonants." However, all of the examples provided have double consonants. They are not the same consonant, but there are two consonants in each example. For example, "bumble" has two consonants "mb," where "m" closes the first syllable directing "u" to be a short vowel, combined with the C-le syllable. These appear to follow the written rule.

Thank you for sharing this. It will be helpful for teaching my ESL primary school students!

I`ve some doubts; will an open syllable always have a long vowel sound?; is it a reliable rule? and a closed syllable will always have a short vowel sound?

Edgar, "always" hardly ever happens in the English language. There will definitely be some exceptions, but the rule holds for the most part.

Edgar, the only "open" syllables that do not have long vowel sounds are those that are in unstressed (shwa sound) syllables such as a-bout, ba-na-na, etc., and the infamous "icky i" , a letter that is not so bold in larger words. Hope that helps.

Actually give IS following the rule. The SUVZ Rule says that a word can not end in a single S,U, V or Z (unless plural for s with a few exceptions when /s/=/z/ and some words that have become shortened) gas = gasoline, bus = auto bus.

What type of syllable is the word, "change"? Many words such as "budge" where you have the consonant combinations ng, nc and dg followed by an e have short vowel sounds. This is confusing for reading students. Are these v-e exceptions?

A thoughtfully planned and written explanation of syllable types that should prove to be very useful to reading teachers and teacher educators alike. I always expect this from Louisa Moats, though. Thanks for sharing this!

Another name given to words like: bold, kind....Wild Old Kind Words.....long (i) or (o) before 2 consonants in a one syllable baseword....just another thought!

Rebecca, the words change, danger, manger, strange, grange, range, and angel show the effect of the Great Vowel Shift. All came into Middle English from French; Chaucer uses spellings like "chaunge" and "daunger", indicating a long vowel that would have sounded sort of like a nasal version of the vowel that stereotypical Bostonians use in "park" or "Harvard". The same vowel, minus the nasalization, was in "make" and "tale", and what happened to that vowel is that its pronunciation changed but its spelling didn't (well, except that the u got dropped). I can think of only three words with -ange- where the vowel is pronounced short - phalange, evangelist, and flange; the first two are later borrowings, and I'm not sure what happened with flange.

As for father, it had the same vowel - and no one is quite sure why its vowel didn't also turn into long A in most dialects of English - though, interestingly, one does encounter a long-A pronunciation (rhyming with "bather") in some forms of Irish English. But father is syllabified as fa.ther, not fath.er, because, however it's pronounced, that A is long, and treating the first syllable as an open syllable makes sense. In contrast, the first vowel of mother is undeniably short, so it makes sense to have its first syllable closed: moth.er, not mo.ther.

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